Eagles exec lauds Philly as soccer showplace

Posted: July 22, 2011

Don Smolenski described it as a "moment where the wind got knocked out" of him.

The Eagles' chief operating officer was referring to the disappointing news that Qatar was to receive the 2022 FIFA World Cup, despite exhaustive efforts from the United States to return the world's greatest sporting event back to these shores for the first time since 1994.

Lincoln Financial Field was one of 18 final venues selected by U.S. Soccer's bid committee to host an event, and few worked more diligently than Smolenski and Co. to make it a reality.

"We worked hard for almost 2 years and a lot of time, energy and people's resources went into putting together a really solid bid," said Smolenski, part of the city's six-man organizing committee that included Philadelphia Sports Congress president Larry Needle and Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz. "After great meetings in New York with the folks from FIFA, we felt positive that if the U.S. was awarded, we'd be hosting some of the games here."

The disappointing turn of events has only inspired Smolenski and the Eagles organization to roll out bigger and better events, beginning with tomorrow's World Football Challenge match between the Union and Real Madrid (9 p.m., ESPN Deportes). The event features the Spanish Cup champion, led by a pair of former FIFA World Players of the Year, forwards Cristiano Ronaldo (2008) and Kaka (2007). Smolenski said that the Linc could have hosted games in June's CONCACAF Gold Cup, but prior commitments with a Monster Jam truck show and country music star Kenny Chesney took precedence. Lincoln Financial Field hosted Gold Cup quarterfinal matches in 2009.

Both English club Everton FC and Italian powerhouse Juventus FC are using the Eagles' NovaCare complex as a training facility. Everton plays D.C. United at RFK Stadium tomorrow, while Juventus, which has set up base camp in Philly for the duration of the WFC, opens play against Sporting Portugal at BMO Field in Toronto.

"When we set out to build Lincoln Financial Field, it was premised on building a world-class facility for world-class events," Smolenski said. "I think we continue to support that claim by bringing in these types of events. For soccer, Philadelphia and this region here - in terms of New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania and parts of Delaware - there is a strong youth soccer program, the Union's emergence here in just their second year and the success that they are having, I think is a testament to this soccer market."

Smolenski noted that as of late yesterday, more than 50,000 tickets had been sold for tomorrow's match. It shows that efforts of nearly a year to host a WFC match was worth the trouble.

"Charlie Stillitano [an agent for the firm CAA Sports, who alongside nutrition company Herbalife formed the WFC] is someone we actually worked with back in 2003 when we opened the doors with a match between Manchester United and Barcelona," Smolenski said. "Through that relationship, we have always remained talking, and we started discussing late last year this World Football Challenge he was putting together."

This will be the 13th international soccer event, and 16th soccer game overall, that the Linc will host, but it doesn't end there. Plans already are in place to go after another WFC match next year, and the dream is still there to host a game on soccer's grandest stage.

"A lot of time, energy and effort went into preparations to host the World Cup," Smolenski said. "But you know what? We are prepared to do it all over again if need be. We definitely want to stay in the mix and continue to host matches, and with our venue, and now the partnership we have with the Union, we are about to do just that."

BREAKING REAL MADRID

The Union and its young guns put on a show for the ages in a 1-0 defeat of Everton FC on Wednesday night at PPL Park. But with a red-hot Real Madrid side coming to Philly tomorrow, it will be a much stiffer test. Led by Ronaldo, who had a hat trick in the second half of Wednesday's match against Chivas de Guadalajara in San Diego, Real has outscored its opponents, 7-1, including beating MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy, 4-1, last Saturday.

"It's going to be tough," Union midfielder Ryan Richter said. "They are playing really good soccer right now, and it's only preseason. They are going to make it tough, but we are confident. These games are all about us going out there and seeing how we stack up among the world's best teams and best players. I know, as a team, we are up for this game, and we are confident in our abilities, now it's simply going out there and having fun with it."

Aside from the World Football Challenge, Real is scheduled to return to Europe to play Hertha Berlin, of the German Bundesliga, at Berlin's Olympic Stadium on July 27.

ODDS AND ENDLINES

Reading United, a minor league affiliate of the Union, is hosting a friendly tonight against the New York Cosmos at Don Thomas Stadium in Exeter (7:30 p.m.). The revived Cosmos, formerly of the old North American Soccer League, will become full members of the USL's Premier Development League next season. We're told that many of the Cosmos in tow tonight will play in a testimonial match for Manchester United great Paul Scholes Aug. 5 at Old Trafford in Manchester. The new Cosmos are a brainchild of Pelé, who serves as honorary president, and former Man U and France forward Eric Cantona, who is the director of soccer ... Univision will air Sunday's Copa America final between Uruguay and Paraguay. Coverage starts at 3 p.m.

SHOTS ON GOAL

Upcoming game

What: World Football Challenge

Who: Real Madrid vs. Union

When: Tomorrow, 9 o'clock

Where: Lincoln Financial Field

TV: ESPN Deportes

On the web: ESPN3.com

For kicks: SEPTA will run its Sports Express on the Broad Street Line until 12:30 a.m. ... The quintessential litmus test arrives in the Spanish Cup champion, which is led by world-class striker Cristiano Ronaldo. Real has been on a tear since opening its WFC campaign against Los Angeles Saturday ... Real leads the WFC standings in points with 12, two points clear of Manchester City, which has 10.

WHAT IS THE WORLD FOOTBALL CHALLENGE?

It's a single-table summer competition in North America in which the teams will earn points as follows:

* Three points for a win.

* Two points for a win via penalty shootout.

* One point for a loss via penalty shootout.

* One point for each goal scored (up to 3 per match).

* Zero points for a loss.

Fourteen teams are participating, but Sporting Portugal is not part of the standings table because of the lone friendly it will play against Juventus FC tomorrow. English Premier League team Chelsea, not part of WFC this year, is the defending champion of the inaugual event in 2009.

INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday)

Out for the Union: Levi Houapeu, FW (left ankle strain)

Questionable: Veljko Paunovic, FW (left hip strain); Kyle Nakazawa, MF (lower back strain)

Sweet tweet

"Perseverance and effort. That is the key to succes." - Union defender Carlos Valdes, before Wednesday's match against Everton. Follow him via Twitter: @carlosvaldes5

Quotable

"We weren't surprised. It was a bit of a workout for us. The Union play a high tempo - they're also a very good team. The exercise for us was to get as much physical attributes out there, and we did that. I think what you saw from us tonight is that we were OK in possession up until the final third and that's where, when you're fully fit, your fitness totally tells [the story]." - Everton and former Manchester United defender Philip Neville

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